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VOL. 125 | NO. 227 | Monday, November 22, 2010

Italian Eatery to Take Over Dish’s Cooper-Young Site

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Italian is coming to the intersection of Cooper and Young.

Leslie Billman and David Cleveland will soon open the Italian restaurant Cortona in Cooper-Young. (Photo: Bob Bayne)

Chef David Cleveland, in Memphis since 1997, and veteran front-of-the-house manager Leslie Billman will open Cortona – they hope by the beginning of 2011 – in the space where Dish closed Jan. 31.

“We talked to a number of people who wanted to put a restaurant in there,” said Charlie Ryan, who has owned the building on the northeast corner of Cooper Street and Young Avenue since 1979. “David is the one we had confidence in to be a success.”

Ryan owns the building across the street, too, at the intersection’s southeast corner, where The Reef (formerly Blue Fish) stands. He is also a partner in Beale Street’s Blues City Café.

The restaurant is named for the ancient south Tuscan town (on the border with Umbria) where Cleveland studied and worked, on and off between 1993 and 1995, absorbing the quality and philosophy of the region’s cuisine: freshness, simplicity, authenticity.

Cleveland, 40, is from Atlanta. Unexpectedly for a long-time chef, he has a fine arts degree in sculpture from the University of Georgia. He admits to not having “a formal education” in kitchen craft, though his parents were involved with food, his father as a photographer, his mother as a stylist. He was still in high school when he got his first restaurant job at a place called Sierra Grill, “and they put me at the grill first thing,” Cleveland said. “It was a trial by fire.”

After working at several restaurants in Atlanta after graduating from college, Cleveland began his sojourn in Italy, punctuated by a return to Atlanta to work at Pasta de Pulchinella. When he finally left Cortona, he worked at another restaurant in Atlanta, Terra Cotta, for a year and a half. Why did he leave that progressive city?

“Atlanta got to be too big,” said Cleveland. “It seemed as if everybody was a transplant. Everything was growing so fast.”

Cleveland’s brother is a doctor a Campbell Clinic, so Memphis seemed like a logical alternative. Armed with a resume, he “walked around Downtown, and somebody told me to apply at The Peabody. I had never heard of Jose (Gutierrez) or Chez Philippe. I ended up working with Jose for six months, but I wasn’t comfortable in a corporate setting.”

The next stop was Ronnie Grisanti & Sons, a five- or six-year tenure. Then Café Society for a year – like many young (or younger) chefs Cleveland moved around – back to the Grisanti association to open Elfo’s in Chickasaw Oaks Mall and another stint at Ronnie’s. Then, in February 2009, he was laid off.

“I think, yes, every chef wants to have his own restaurant, at least once,” Cleveland said, “to see what it’s like, to see if he can do it.”

He worked at The Ranch, in Como, Miss., but has been occupied recently with finding a space and setting up investors and with the redesign of the large area that Cortona will fill.

There’s history here.

The storefronts that extend along Cooper and Young formed the shopping district for a neighborhood developed in the early 20th century for primarily modest housing designed for middle-class and lower-middle class families that provided much of the labor force and craftsmen for the burgeoning city. (By 1919, the Parkways defined the limits of Memphis.) In the 1920s, the expansive building at 948 S. Cooper held one of the city’s first Piggly Wiggly grocery stores. Neighborhoods always suffer transitions and declines, and after World War II and the tremendous growth of the suburbs, Cooper-Young gradually became neglected, if not derelict. Who remembers, in the ’80s, that a trip to Indochina, to feast on Thom Bach’s egg rolls, seemed like a drive to a foreign country?

Then Charlie Ryan engineered a remodeling of the building and in 1991 the restaurant Midtown opened, the first consciously (or self-consciously) hip bar and eating place in town. Well, that’s a whole separate story, but after Midtown closed about 18 months later, 948 S. Cooper saw a succession of restaurants – Maxwell’s, Cooper St. Bar & Grill, Melange (the best of this series), Dish – that never stayed open for long, even as the intersection itself saw some restaurants open and prosper. Still, Cleveland and Billman see Cortona as a perfect fit with the neighborhood.

“The style will be light, fresh pastas, pizzas, keeping it affordable,” Cleveland said. “We want to be priced in the mid-range. We’re working with a designer to lighten up the whole place, open it up.”

For her part, Billman, 43, a native Memphian, brings years of experience as waiter, manager, food and beverage director and work for a food distributor to Cortona’s dining room. She started at the old Riverside Restaurant (in Number One Beale) in the late 1980s, where she met Chef Richard Farmer, went to the long-defunct King Cotton Café and then opened Farmer’s Jarrett’s and moved on to Bistro 122. Working at Ronnie Grisanti’s, she met Cleveland. There followed a two-year stint working for a food distributor and another two years as manager of Paulette’s, then on to food and beverage at The Madison hotel. Currently, she’s working for Aramark, the food service purveyor for the University of Memphis, but, as she said, “I’ll be giving that up soon.”

Her idea of service is simple: “Provide the best service possible. It’s all about hospitality and anticipating needs and wants. Waiters should be so well-informed and so knowledgeable that patrons don’t even have to open a menu.”

PROPERTY SALES 56 94 12,852
MORTGAGES 23 50 8,053
BUILDING PERMITS 285 422 30,356
BANKRUPTCIES 23 67 6,131